Sunday, March 01, 2015

"Young Indiana Jones" and D.W. Griffith

One of the delights of George Lucas' Young Indiana Jones Chronicles was that its creators had an obvious love of the movies that was apparent throughout the series, which was unusually cinematic for a television program at that time. One of the later made-for-TV movies, Young Indiana Jones and the Hollywood Follies (1994) was built entirely around Indy's brush with silent era Hollywood, being tasked by Irving Thalberg to keep Erich von Stroheim's Foolish Wives from going over-budget, and joining John Ford and his company on location during the shooting of a Western. This episode was clearly made by people with a real knowledge of the historical figures, places and films of old Hollywood.

But earlier in the series, in the first two-part episode that aired in 1992, there is another silent film reference to be found. The episode, "The Curse of the Jackal", involved Indy traveling south of the border on spring break from college, and getting mixed up with Pancho Villa and his troops. In one scene, following a violent raid, the revolutionaries attend a movie to unwind. Indy is on hand to provide translation of the subtitles for the men, who are moved to tears by the tender love story, set against the backdrop of the Civil War, that is unfolding on screen before them in flickering, black and white images accompanied by a tinkling piano.

The movie is D.W. Griffith's The Battle, which he made for the Biograph company in 1911 and was one of a number of films the director made dealing with the subject of the Civil War. The actors in the shot above are Charles West, a leading man at Biograph who would continue acting in bit parts until 1940; and Blanche Sweet, who was a favorite leading lady of Griffith's during this period, appearing in such films as The Massacre and Judith of Bethulia.

The premise of The Battle involves a young soldier in the Union army who is separated from his girlfriend when he is called to march into war. During the fighting, he becomes panic-stricken, deserts his fellow soldiers, and seeks refuge in the girl's house. She laughs at him and brands him a coward, but when the boy sees his comrades facing almost certain defeat at the hands of the enemy, he summons up the courage to go back to fight, commandeering a supply wagon and delivering the troops with the ammunition they need to win the battle. In the end, he is reunited with the girl and recognized for his bravery.

Overall, it is a fairly routine melodrama, one of many of its kind that Griffith turned out during this period of his career. It is mainly of interest for some well-staged battle scenes that play like a kind of warm-up for The Birth of a Nation. I had seen the clip of the film used in the Young Indiana Jones episode years before I saw the actual film in its entirety; when I finally did, I recognized it instantly, and was reminded of the attention to historical detail that made the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles such a rewarding program to watch.

I wonder if Pancho Villa and his men ever actually saw the film?

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